New 'snitch' allegations rock federal biker case
DETROIT — When the U.S. Attorney's Office indicted 91 alleged members and associates of Detroit's Highwaymen Motorcycle Club on allegations of racketeering, drug trafficking, theft and murder for hire, a central thread in the case was gang leader Aref (Steve) Nagi's attempts to root out suspected snitches.
Nagi's preoccupation with informants inside the storied and homegrown motorcycle gang — whose violent history is credited with keeping the Hells Angels out of Detroit — was evident in his rambling, late-night phone conversations, which were secretly recorded by the FBI and introduced as evidence at the 2010 trial in federal court in Detroit.
And when the FBI raided the Highwaymen's Michigan Avenue clubhouse in southwest Detroit in 2007, they discovered a photograph of one of their two confidential informants —with the word "rat" scrawled in black marker across his face.
The case sent more than 30 Highwaymen to prison —- many, including Nagi, for lengthy sentences.
But some of those convictions are now being challenged because of new revelations that Nagi himself — a former Highwaymen vice president and the lead defendant — had worked as a confidential informant for federal and local police agencies.
Convicted Highwayman Gary (Junior) Ball Jr., who from his federal prison cell used Michigan's Freedom of Information Act to uncover Nagi's hidden past, says Nagi and his Detroit attorney, James Thomas, led defense strategy meetings in the massive case. Among the concerns: Whether what he and other defendants thought were confidential disclosures made to attorneys may have been fed, through Nagi, to the FBI and prosecutors.
The Highwaymen, founded in Detroit in 1954, gained infamy in the 1970s when some members were convicted of bombing and raiding homes and clubhouses of rivals. The outlaw motorcycle gang, which at least until the indictments was Detroit's largest, was seen by many as an outlaw among outlaws — banned from a federation of Detroit clubs founded by a former Outlaws president.
In a March 29 court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goetz highlighted some of the Highwaymen lore, alleging the club had "terrorized southwest Detroit for decades" through drug dealings, beatings and theft and "got away with everything." He described an incident in which several club members pulled up in front of an occupied southwest Detroit home and fired 15 rounds into it, as well as beatings administered with fists, beer bottles and chairs on occasions when club members encountered a suspected snitch, or someone who was significantly behind on his drug payments.
Ball, 51, who is serving a 30-year sentence and wants a new trial, has a May 17 hearing scheduled before U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.
The hearing is to explore other irregularities Ball uncovered, such as the fact that his own defense attorney, Lawrence Shulman of Birmingham, without Ball's knowledge, also represented a co-defendant, Randy McDaniel, charged in connection with some of the same crimes as Ball. Court records show Shulman cut a deal for McDaniel in another federal case that resulted in his charges in the Highwaymen case being dropped.
The Shulman conflict alone, which Shulman denied existed in an email to the Free Press, is grounds for Ball — convicted of racketeering, conspiracy to transport stolen vehicles, drug trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to obliterate vehicle identification numbers — to get a new trial, said Ball's Alabama attorney, David Schoen.
But the Nagi revelations, he said, have the potential to also undo other convictions.
"The case is a mess," Schoen said.
Thomas, well-known in Detroit as the lead defense attorney in former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's federal corruption case, vehemently denied Nagi ever acted as a police informant. He swore an affidavit to that effect in November.
Ball must have Nagi confused with some other Aref Nagi, Thomas insisted, pointing out that the Aref Nagi he represented, sometimes known as "Steve" or "Scarface," has a birth date of Aug. 17, 1963.
That, however, is the same birth date as the Aref Nagi who, in 1992, arranged for delivery of 2 kilos of cocaine in a shopping center parking lot, then gave the signal for Troy police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to swoop in, according to records Ball obtained using the FOIA. Booking photos released by Troy Police also match Nagi's image.
In the Highwaymen trial, "the defendants agreed to have Mr. Nagi's defense attorney serve as a sort of defense team leader and Mr. Ball would have never agreed to the same had he known all relevant facts," Schoen said in a court filing.
Federal prosecutors, unlike Thomas, aren't denying the truth of what Ball discovered, including Nagi's past role as a police informant. But they are downplaying its significance, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline told the Free Press on Wednesday he wasn't even aware at the time of the Highwaymen trial of Nagi's past role as an informant.
Nagi, who was convicted of racketeering, assault with a dangerous weapon, use of a firearm in committing a violent crime, conspiracy to transport stolen property, drug conspiracy and other charges, was sentenced to 37 years in prison, later reduced to 27 years on appeal. In 2016, Edmunds further cut Nagi's sentence to 20 years, based on submissions from Thomas about his "exemplary" conduct in federal prison.
Nagi's "conviction at trial and lengthy sentence should be enough proof of the fact that he did not cooperate," Graveline said in an April 5 court filing.
"However, the government can aver that the case agent never interviewed Mr. Nagi as part of his investigation and both the undersigned and the case agent are unaware of any attempts by Nagi to cooperate, at any time, with law enforcement, in their investigation of the Detroit Highwaymen Outlaw Motorcycle Club."
But Schoen said it's important for Ball to know the full history of Nagi's cooperation with federal and other police agencies, and who decided to conceal Nagi's past from Ball, even if it turns out Nagi wasn't a "spy in the camp" during the Highwaymen trial. At a minimum, he wants a chance to question Nagi and Thomas under oath.
"The overriding point is, the defendants are entitled to know this stuff," and it was never disclosed, Schoen said.
Since Ball raised the issue, two other imprisoned Highwaymen — Leonard (Dad) Moore, who was dubbed the club's "godfather" at trial, and former national president Joseph (Little Joe) Whiting — have filed court papers making similar arguments.
Follow Paul Egan on Twitter: @paulegan4
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